Michigan's fast, fresh pavement more than a surface matter
By: NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
When the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule was released, it didn't come with road construction signs for the first two weeks in June. Perhaps it should have.
For the second consecutive race, NASCAR tackles a track with fresh asphalt as it makes the first of two annual stops at Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's Quicken Loans 400 (1 p.m. ET, TNT). While the configuration of the 2-mile D-shaped oval remains unchanged, speeds are expected to climb at what is already one of the fastest tracks on the circuit.
"It's going to be challenging to maintain the pace that we're going to be able to run there," said Jeff Gordon, a two-time Michigan winner, "but I've always loved Michigan and I was just happy to know that other than new pavement and a smooth race track, other than that, not a lot changed, which I was happy to hear."
As with last week's event at newly repaved Pocono Raceway, series officials have allotted extra track time for teams to adjust to the speedway, which has its first fresh coat of asphalt since 1995. Sprint Cup drivers begin testing Thursday morning before additional practice Friday.
Venturing into the unknown doesn't seem to bother Brad Keselowski, a Michigan native who called the track a "thrill ride" after a Goodyear tire test on the new asphalt in April. Conditions will be much warmer this time around, with temperatures forecast to reach the upper 80s all weekend.
"I don't think anyone really knows what to expect," said Keselowski, who ranks 10th in the standings. "Those are always the cool races to me, the races where everybody comes in with no experience and you just kind of go."
Going around Michigan hasn't been a problem in recent years for Joe Gibbs Racing, which has won three of the last four races held in the Irish Hills. Denny Hamlin has won the last two June races at Michigan and teammate Kyle Busch sealed a JGR season sweep there last August. With Joey Logano registering a convincing win last weekend at Pocono, each Gibbs driver has at least one victory this season.
While no Gibbs driver needed a turnaround more desperately than Logano, whose job security has been rumor mill fodder for much of the season, it's Busch who is in most need of a rebound this week. Two straight engine-related DNFs -- after a stretch of four straight top-fives -- have dropped Busch from eighth to 12th in the Sprint Cup standings, throwing his name into the hotly contested Chase wild-card fight.
"It's very frustrating," Busch said. "These guys here at Joe Gibbs Racing and everybody on this team deserves better than this. It's unfortunate that we just aren't getting the results we need because (crew chief) Dave (Rogers) and the guys have been working hard and bringing good cars to the race track. We just haven't been able to figure out what has caused our problems the last two weeks. I know a lot of people are working hard to get it figured out."
Sunday's race is expected to mark the second career Sprint Cup start for Austin Dillon, last year's champion in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and current Nationwide Series rookie. The 400-miler would also be the 600th Cup start for veteran Joe Nemechek. Both Dillon and Nemechek are among 10 drivers outside the top 35 in series owners points vying for eight starting berths based on qualifying speed.
NATIONWIDE POINTS TIGHTEN UP
Given his recent free fall from the top of the NASCAR Nationwide Series standings, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. may have benefitted the most from last weekend's off week.
Stenhouse hopes to use the extra time to regroup in Saturday's Alliance Truck Parts 250 (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) at Michigan International Speedway. The defending series champion was runner-up to Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards in this race last year.
So far, 2012 has been a banner year for Stenhouse, who led the standings for four consecutive weeks on the strength of three victories and a string of nine straight finishes of sixth or better. Since then, Stenhouse's No. 6 has slipped in the invincibility department, finishing 26th with drive shaft failure at Charlotte and 32nd after a crash at Dover.
The two-week lapse allowed Elliott Sadler, Stenhouse's top challenger for last year's Nationwide crown, to ride a modest streak of three straight top-10s into the series points lead. It also has allowed top rookie Austin Dillon, Sadler's Richard Childress Racing teammate, to close in on the title hunt; just 14 points separate the top three.
The championship contenders will be facing the same challenges as their Sprint Cup counterparts, racing on Michigan's blazing-fast new pavement. The Nationwide Series will get just over three hours of practice Friday before Saturday's qualifying session and the race.
"With only 125 laps in the Nationwide Series race, there is a sense of urgency," Sadler said. "We have to unload quickly and qualify well. I'm very interested to get out there on Friday for practice to see how the repave affected the track. The track has historically been one that fuel mileage is very important, and with it being a shorter race, anything can happen."